by RichardKennaway1 min read19th Dec 201049 comments


Personal Blog

What does a rationalist do for Christmas (or whatever analogue is going on around you at this time)? Stay at home and grumble, "Bah, humbug! Stop having-fun-for-bad-reasons, and did you know that Láadan has a single word for that concept?"?

Attempting to light a candle instead, I am giving my teenaged nephew, who was into science but is now into history, "Guns, Germs and Steel", which combines both. Someone else (I haven't decided who) is getting "The Atheist's Guide To Christmas" which has chapters by Richard Dawkins, Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh, and the like.

What are you doing for Christmas?

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Every year without fail I have gone to my Grandma's house for Christmas, participated in traditions that have nothing to do with religions except for some angel ornaments she owns, exchanged gifts, consumed foods, and spent time with assembled family for whom Christmas serves as a Schelling point to all show up in the same place. I don't particularly care why December 25 is the family-gathering Schelling point except insofar as trying to change it would be difficult, or whether the traditions we have were calling themselves "religious" before I was born.

This might be a rather unpopular claim in a strongly atheist crowd like this one, but there's really no reason to feel particularly hostile towards ostensibly religious customs like Christmas.

Why should atheists care so much more about "Christ" part of "Christmas" than Christians? To most "religious" people Christmas is just a fun family tradition with not much more than lip service being paid to its religious aspect. "Yeah, sure, Jesus was born, whatever, let's have fun now".

Even more amusingly consumerist culture has been amazingly effective at eroding religious character of Christmas. The right things usually happen for the wrong reasons.

This might be a rather unpopular claim in a strongly atheist crowd like this one, but there's really no reason to feel particularly hostile towards ostensibly religious customs like Christmas.

I'd expect it's a very popular claim in a crowd like this one.

Yup; count me as one more atheist that's not particularly hostile towards Christmas.

(But then there's a lot of religious stuff I'm not hostile to, plenty of good music, good architecture, priests are probably a mostly positive influence on a community ... plenty of bad stuff too, but then the same could be said of nationalism and most political ideologies)

My impression has been that most people who bother talking about their atheism online (obviously highly self-selected group) seem to follow Dawkins' idea that religious moderates somehow enable religious fundamentalists, and are therefore indirectly evil as well. This was always the most dubious aspect of the New Atheism.

Should we make effort to end football just because some people are overly enthusiastic about their favourite team? Nearly everything about modern society can be highly destructive sometimes, but we've figured out how to deal with it really well most of the time.

[-][anonymous]11y 21

Websites about atheism are a different group of people than websites about rationality. There's overlap, to be sure, but the people who are "passionate" about being irreligious don't tend to gravitate here; my view of a typical LWer is that they may go through a phase of thinking lack of religion is worth spending a lot of time discussing, but then they move past it because it's not a very difficult question. LWers talk about their atheism, but usually only when provoked.

Participating in rituals of religious origin isn't equivalent to practicing religion though, moderate or otherwise.

Football is football, but Christmas is not Christianity.

Even more amusingly consumerist culture has been amazingly effective at eroding religious character of Christmas. The right things usually happen for the wrong reasons.

I've thought that maybe this might eventually be the way the Christianity itself meets it's demise. Maybe the militant atheists might want to move this process along a bit, and just commercialise religion to death.

I've thought that maybe this might eventually be the way the Christianity itself meets it's demise.

Religions just love to pretend that they stayed more or less the same for thousands of years, but they change just as fast as everything else. Modern forms of Christianity have nearly nothing important in common with what they were a few hundred years ago.

L Ron Hubbard is finally revealed as a brilliant and subversive atheist tactician!

Technically, I don't think he ever lied about being an atheist.

People didn't already know this?

Echoing everyone else, I don't see why I need to give up my cultural traditions because they used to be associated with false beliefs about the world. Rituals don't have propositional content, so practicing them doesn't make me more wrong. We'll even have an angel on the top of the tree because angels are prettier to look at than stars (which have their origin as religious anyway). Also, I'll be listening to religious Christmas music because the traditional stuff is way better than most Christmas pop. We'll have a tree, lights, and probably some jokes about how Mary really got knocked up by a Roman soldier.

Pa rum pum pum pum!

I've always loved Christmas and I still do. We've got an artificial tree up--I'm a tree-hugger, and I finally felt too bad about watching a tree slowly die in my house each year. My daughter is learning quite a few new words right now, so she tells us "Lights! On? On?" when she wants it plugged in. We'll have good food and stuffed stockings and open gifts with music playing.

It could be that sharing holidays with others is a big reason why modern people stick with religion at all.

White Wine In The Sun by Tim Minchin (poetically expressing a sane take on the tradition of Christmas, with some Australian specifics).

My 10 & 12 year old girls are neutral to negative on the idea that god exists, my 10 year old clearly thinks the whole concept is ludicrous.

But we have no doubt about Christmas existing. We have lights, a tree and other decorations, gifts, and family comes over.

I see no reason theology should ruin a perfectly good holy day.

Since nobody else has said it yet: Chinese food. (OK, so that's because my family is Jewish...)

My family's doing the same this year. My father comes from a Christian family, and my mother from a Jewish one, and normally we've taken the excuse to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, but this year our financial situation doesn't allow for it.

I suppose it's probably related to the fact that if you treat the holiday as an occasion to eat out, Chinese restaurants are more likely than most to actually be open (certainly more likely than most other restaurants that would have been around fifty years ago.) I wish that the Jews of a couple generations ago had managed to come up with a less lackluster tradition.

You can't forget going to the movie theater afterwards

As an atheist and a capitalist, I find it quite satisfying that capitalism has largely displaced religion in one of Christianity's most important holidays. I have no problem celebrating that!

I think you mean consumerism not capitalism. Putting some distance on those two seems wise to me.

Stop having-fun-for-bad-reasons, and did you know that Láadan has a single word for that concept?

Thuna, in case anyone's wondering. The whole sentence might be Bód ril nóthuna wi (I think).

People have been celebrating around the solstice long before Christianity sold the holiday. Most of the Christmassy things: gifts, trees, fires, food, song and so on are left over from pre-Christian holidays. Take back Christmas a have a ball.

I just think it is a good time for a party and has been for a long time at high latitudes. I don't think there is a problem with this. If religious people want to control the party, just ignore them and enjoy Christmas.

Take back Christmas

...because Less Wrong and all of us rationalists are descended in a direct line from pre-Christian solstice-celebrating pagans?

I am really confused by this line of thought. Is this really a way to be rational about Christmas, or is it just a way to be anti-Christian?

This whole idea is actually a major source of conflict in my family. I consider myself an atheist, but I enjoy Christmas and see it as an excuse to get together with my family, exchange gifts, listen to the music, eat food, light a fire in the fireplace, and just generally experience quality time with my few blood relations. I'm actually quite attached to the holiday. It has been the source of many fond memories.
However, my parents aren't letting me participate this year, because of my beliefs. They think Christmas is about Jesus and by celebrating I'll be cheapening the holiday for them. They don't understand why, if I'm an atheist, I should even want to celebrate Christmas, and that I'm not being consistent with what I think. Therefore, I won't be able to give or receive presents, go to church or do Christmas related things with them. I personally agree with Alicorn's and taw's comments: I see no reason to feel hostile towards the holiday. Does anyone have any advice for what I should do?

My advice, worth exactly what you're paying for it:

First, decide whether you think it's more likely that...

  • ...they really do understand your state, and their experience of Christmas will be genuinely sullied by sharing it with a child who doesn't worship Jesus, or

  • ...they don't really understand your state, but they are sincere that their experience of Christmas would be sullied by sharing it with a child who has whatever attributes they are inferring you have, or

  • ...they aren't at all sincere, and are threatening to withhold Christmas from you as a way of pressuring you into recanting your atheism and asserting the beliefs they'd prefer you assert.

(Other things are possible, as are combinations. Those seem the likeliest options in the absence of details about your family, though.)

Given #1, I'd advise finding others to celebrate Christmas with, and letting your parents know that if they ever change their minds and welcome you into their Christmas celebration you'd be happy to share it with them.
Given #2, I'd advise looking for new ways to communicate your actual beliefs to them.
Given #3, I'd advise letting them know that's what you think they're doing and finding others to celebrate Christmas with.

We will have a family dinner, seeing each other for the first time in months. Our one grand-daughter will thrill us with her enthusiasm. It will be a lovely, cozy day with good food and conversation. No tree;no decorations. Worst thing is that there is no place to go for morning coffee.

I will be at home with my girlfriend, our daughter and her other two daughters. There will be much eating of food, drinking of beer, and watching the 3yo play with all the toys she will be receiving. Skype to her grandmothers is likely. I will not treating it as a Mandatory Fun Day, not having ever been a fan of such.

My grandmother was religious (Seventh Day Adventist) and tried very hard to dun it into our heads, but the only God observed (or slightly glanced at) at Christmas was Mammon, as is of course standard in suburban Western civilisation. And Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, which one television station ran every year.

Christmas is barely even religious anymore. My family is a bunch of non-believing Jews with one probably-non-believing Christian grandma, and we all celebrate because we like celebrating.

Thankfully, Russia doesn't celebrate Christmas that widely (and its Christmas is on January 7 anyway). The main holiday here is New Year, which shares many attributes with Western Christmas, such as decorated trees and a Santa-like figure, but is otherwise completely secular. One thing I can thank the Bolsheviks for, at least.

Guns Germs and Steel is a horrible book.

I was going to give myself the gift of sleep deprivation, but I opened that one early (woo uberman!). So far, it's just going to be another day for me.

Ooh, how is that going for you?

Simultaneously well and poorly. I made it past the sleep deprivation part (and that was an unique experience) and seem to be operating at full brainpower but I think I'm stuck on a sort of double everyman- I do fine for 10 cycles of 20 minutes nap+220 minutes awake and then spend 2 cycles asleep (i.e. 8 hours). Just this last time did I get enough evidence to suspect that it's a trend (I've only been doing this for 10 days and that's not many 2 day cycles) and so two days from now I'll see if I can break that habit.

Supposedly everyman takes longer to adapt to than uberman, so I'm not entirely sure what's going on here- I have been keeping notes and plan to post a writeup somewhere once I feel done enough with the transition.

Interesting. Good luck!

Ideas to spend christmas.

  1. Start calling it newtonmas and have meetups of secular people.

  2. Rest and rejuvenate. Go to a spa or something, meditate, read up on good books. (What I will be doing plus visiting some friends)

  3. Trade in markets which don't have a christmas holiday (are there many of those?) Utilise the lack of people to find arbitrage opportunities that might have otherwise not been caught.


Perhaps you could choose a more appropriate symbol for a secular holiday than Newton.

Newton has the important advantage of having been born on Christmas day, which no notable atheist has, as far as I can see.

Laplacemas just doesn't have the same ring to it.

Humemas? Darwinmas?

Bayesmas might actually be pronouonceable. But I like Newtonmas because of the date connection.

Enlightenmas is nicely pronouncable, but it doesn't look as good as Bayesmas.

Alternatively, getting rid of the shortened "mass" at the end of it would probably be a good plan.

But Newton was all to do with "mass"!

[-][anonymous]11y 0


Going to a friend's party.

[-][anonymous]11y -2

I think the saying "It's the thought that counts", when referring to a poor christmas present choice, is about as useful as saying "it's OK that you two-boxed and now have no money, it's the thought of two boxes of money that counts" to a Newcomb puzzler.

Considerate present buyers should win, and that means getting good presents for people.

Though I haven't done any formal studying, it seems from my experience that there is little correlation between "how long I spend thinking" and how useful or appreciated a present is, and even little correlation with the amount spent.

How should I choose (or, think about choosing) presents for people in a way more likely to result in my desired outcome, and with less waste of time rehashing the same ground?

[-][anonymous]11y -2

What are you doing for Christmas?

Bought Two and a Half Men: The Complete Seasons 1-6 (2980 minutes). That should suffice.